It’s unresolved whether the title of Deborah Levy’s most recent novel derives from the kind of milk you mix with a Yorkshire tea or the kind that’s suckled from a mum’s breast. In Hot Milk, Levy presents us with a thinly threaded knot of symbolic prose.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and, as of the other week, the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction, Hot Milk may appear scantily clad but has an effect much the opposite. It is a short novel, and that perhaps is great reason for the grasp that the immensely unreliable narrator, Sofia, has on a reader.
Sofia is an average 25 year old from Hackney who abandoned her doctorate for dual jobs, one as a barista and the other as primary caretaker of her questionably ill mother Rose. Rose has legs unable to walk, or atleast sometimes. She has traveled to southern Spain with Sofia to a specialist clinic in the hopes of diagnosis.
Female forces, of which are either intimate, maternal or platonic, guide the novel’s momentum. Sofia’s sub conscience and conscious mind lie at the heart of the narrative, however, and her unreliability is frustrating in a rather endearing and plainly normal way. In addressing Sofia’s unreliability, however, it is impossible to ignore the story’s male players.
Gómez, the doctor at the clinic, is arguably the strongest male force in the novel because he prompts the healing process of Rose whilst also refusing to give into her seminal madness. Sofia engages in a physical romance with Juan, the beach’s health tent attendee, and she visits her distant Greek father to eventually gain the financial assistance to continue in her studies. Gómez, however, leaves Sofia with only a few final words: We have to mourn our dead, but we cannot let them take over our life.
The medusas which float in the sea and repeatedly sting Sofia reappear all the way through to the novels final paragraph. The stings that remain plastered to her body provide her with occasional discomfort, however, not nearly as much as the emotional distress of her own loss of self, which can be credited to the life she has given up to her mother and the lack thereof her father for a woman her own age.
In fact, the novels end suggests that Sofia may think of herself much like a medusa, “in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin.” It just so happens that Medusa is also a female monster of Greek mythological origin who would turn all who gazed upon her to stone. Sofia struggles with herself as such a being, with one who serves a detrimental but also rather beautiful purpose to her companions.
Hot Milk is a contemporary tale told in a way that evokes timeless sensations of belonging, of history, of purpose, and of love. The hot, dry climate of Almería is suited for a novel that deceivingly fits at first hold like a flowery dress. The poetic density of the novel, however, hangs on a reader like a wool jacket that’s kept on even in the desert.